TRIPOLI, Lebanon: It was early August when the two brazen young men set sail from Tripoli’s port for Turkey, leaving behind their homes in rural Fnaydeq, heading for the Islamic State.
Of the two, the youngest, 16-year-old Mahmoud, was hesitant about the decision they had made when their boat arrived in the Turkish city of Mersin, 400 kilometers from the crossing into Ain al-Arab in Syria. It was this uncertainty that allowed Fnaydeq’s Sheikh Samih Abou Haye to later convince the impressionable youth, over the phone, to forgo the mission and return to Lebanon.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Abou Haye, a school principal who had once taught the boy, told The Daily Star.
His 22-year-old companion, Abed al-Rahman al-Sayyed, wasn’t moved. He crossed into Syria alone, where he died two months later in Raqqa, a soldier of ISIS under fire from U.S.-led airstrikes.
The number of Lebanese flocking to join the ranks of the extremist group is on the rise, according to accounts from local authorities, experts and residents in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Of those known to be fighting under the banner of ISIS, most hail from Sunni areas with endemic unemployment, where anti-Assad sentiment has historically run high.
Abou Haye, too, blames disorganization within Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, for allowing misinformation about Islamic teaching to proliferate.
“There have been Lebanese recruits to ISIS, and the Nusra Front, well before the Arsal clashes,” said Basel Idriss, an FSA commander in Arsal acquainted with militants belonging to both groups. But according to the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Mario Abou Zeid, the number of recruits increased “massively,” after the clashes.
“This is part of [ISIS’] military strategy, to open up several fronts and expand,” Abou Zeid said, adding that about 100 men had been recruited since August, from Arsal, Tripoli and southern Sunni districts.
“It’s a huge operation,” he said, with new recruits instructed to form sleeper cells in Lebanon. “They are getting paid; without money they would not be able to mobilize and ensure loyalty.”
Family members of Lebanese who died fighting told The Daily Star that they had simply disappeared one day.
Many parents only learned about the fate of their sons after receiving a phone call informing them that they had been martyred.
Those who knew Sayyed, including the town’s mayor, described him as intelligent and austerely religious. He died two credits short of earning an engineering degree. “The last time I saw him, he was praying at the mosque,” said Khaldoun Taleb, the town’s mayor.
Sayyed came from an Army family. His father is still a serviceman. The soldier Ali al-Sayyed, who was beheaded by his ISIS captors in Arsal, was his cousin. But the mayor brushed off contrarieties. “If the government doesn’t do something [to create opportunities for youth] then more will be lining up to fight for ISIS,” he said.
The Fnaydeq boys were primed by online recruiters, who engaged them in forums, according to the sheikh. In the northeastern border town of Arsal, by contrast, with militants positioned on the outskirts, youths are approached directly. Ghaith Ahmad Nouh, 18, an Arsal native, was recruited some months ago and killed in a mosque Sept. 30 in Syria’s Hassakeh governorate during airstrikes in the region.
“He is a victim, of course, of terrible economic conditions and the government’s foot-dragging,” a relative of Nouh’s said. “The people here are very poor, and young men need money, which ISIS is willing to give.”
According to the relative, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the militants, Nouh made several trips to Syria, crossing from established supply routes in Arsal, before his death last month. “ISIS has people in the town, and they recruit people,” he said. “They obviously tricked him into going there.
“They are trying to change our mentality and our identity. And if I don’t dare say these things publicly, because they would threaten me or kidnap me the very next day.”
He estimates that nearly 100 men had joined the group in recent months, ensnared by certain sheikhs in the town, who expound on the group’s exalted purpose, and lured with the promise of a $500 starting monthly salary, in an area where spillover from Syria has cut off access to industry, namely fruit farming and stone-quarrying. Local authorities said unemployment stood at an overwhelming 85 percent.
Nouh’s father worked in a sawmill and struggled to make ends meet, but the boy found respite with a local sheikh, whom the relative claimed spouts radical sermons to embolden potential recruits. “His parents thought that their kid was going to the mosque to pray, but instead he was being taught how everyone is an infidel.”
According to local accounts, the group has a handful of recruiters in Arsal, young men between the ages of 16 and 30, who promote ISIS membership as a religious cause, and offer promises of financial stability and, as Nouh once told a relative, women.
At one point, he convinced his teen cousin to go to the mosque with him. “I noticed a change in my son, and when he told me about the sheikh’s teachings I forbade him to go,” the boy’s father said.
Hardly anyone came to the young man’s memorial, after his parents, distraught by the news of his death Tuesday, announced that they were accepting condolences.
In Tripoli’s Qibbeh neighborhood, by contrast, spirits were high at the memorial for Khaled Ahmad Ahdab, a Lebanese ISIS fighter who died in Iraq this week. Two ISIS flags fluttered by the Hamza Mosque roundabout, as dozens of men streamed inside to pay their respects, laughing and hugging one another by the entrance. Women held a private reception at the family home.
“He used to call me his big brother,” Abu Khaled said, standing by the mosque door. “No one except his father knew where he went. He didn’t like to publicize himself.”
A call to “congratulate” the Ahdab family was plastered at every corner of the neighborhood. Typed in a bold black-and-white, it began with a verse from the Koran: “Do not consider those who died in the name of God as dead,” with a picture of the deceased jihadist, also known by his nom du guerre Abu Hamza, wearing a skullcap and pointing to the heavens with a raised index finger.
“The Islamic State is here to stay,” cried a young man, leaving the mosque.
Ahdab’s death was extolled, a reaction deemed “normal” by a prominent local sheikh, who is also a relative of the young man.
“The community has welcomed the news because the man [Ahdab] did his lawful duty,” Sheikh Zakaria Abed Razzak al-Masri, an uncle of the young man, said. “He was able to carry out this duty, while other people cannot. So they consider him a martyr.”
According to the sheikh, Ahdab’s body will be buried in Iraq where he died. “Before he left, he spoke about how everyone needs to go, then one day he did,” he said.
Despite widespread poverty in Qibbeh, where some 30 percent live on less than $4 a day, Masri ruled out a financial motive spurring Ahdab’s decision to go to Iraq.
The sheikh recalled how often Ahdab would criticize the complacency of other Arab countries toward the Syria crisis, and the plight of Sunnis in northern Iraq. “Religion demands us to stand with the oppressed against the oppressor. His commitment to faith, morality and humanity pushed him to go.”
Ahdab’s memorial in Tripoli took place on the same day as Sayyed’s memorial in Fnaydeq.
“Men excited to leave, who hear that someone like them has died in Syria, are not affected by the news. They go well aware that death is highly likely,” the mayor of Fnaydeq said.
“Sayyed’s death, for instance, will not stop others from going.” – With additional reporting by Edy Semaan, Hashem Osseiran